Bewilderment by Richard Powers: A review
One day at school Robin's best (and only) friend tells him that when his mother swerved to avoid hitting an animal in the road and hit a tree instead that she actually committed suicide. Angry and distraught, Robin hits him with his thermos and breaks his cheekbone. He avoids expulsion but the school insists that his father get help for him. Already he has been evaluated by several doctors because of his inability to control his rages. They've come back with a variety of potential diagnoses: Asperger's, OCD, or ADHD. One doctor tells his father that Robin is "on the spectrum." Theo opines, "We are all 'on the spectrum.' That's what a spectrum is." The doctors and the school authorities are unanimous in believing that Robin should be medicated. Theo, a university astrophysicist, refuses their advice: "He's nine years old! His brain is still developing."
Nevertheless, it is clear as Robin's behavior has become increasingly erratic and rageful that his father must do something. His first response is to take him on a wilderness trip. They spend their time exploring rivers and forests and sleeping under the stars and as long as they are there Robin is happy and well-adjusted. He is his mother's own son and is attuned to all of Nature's entities. His empathy embraces them all. But he can't stay in the wilderness. He has to go back to school and his father has to go back to his job. The world they return to is completely inhospitable for a child who is "different."
Theo is utterly out of his depth as a parent. He says in his narration, "I could no more raise a child than I could speak Swahili." In something approaching desperation, he contacts a scientist who is experimenting with a behavior modification technique called Decoded Neurofeedback. Before her death, his wife had participated in the experiment as a test subject and her mental landscape as recorded during her participation is still available. The decision is made to allow Robin to be a test subject and to use the technology to get closer to his dead mother's mind in the hope that it will advance his mental capacity and give him greater self control. The experiment succeeds beyond Theo's wildest hopes. For what happens next, well, you'll just have to read the book.
This book is apparently a reworking of Daniel Keye's famous sci-fi novel Flowers For Algernon. Unfortunately, I haven't read that book, but Theo's narration points out the similarities between Decoded Neurofeedback and the experimental technology in that book that enhances the mental capacity of a mouse first and later of a man with low IQ.
The action of this book takes place in a dystopian near future when environmental collapse is accelerating and democracy is falling apart. The country is led by an autocratic ignoramus who sounds very much like our most recent former president. It's a country where armed private militias patrol for "unspecified foreign invaders." This is all happening in the background but what we get in the foreground is the somewhat claustrophobic relationship between Theo and Robin. The dramatic focus never wavers from this relationship with the result that, at some point, it all begins to feel a bit suffocating. Powers is at his best when describing the great American outdoors or the vastness of the universe and the possibilty of life on extrasolar planets. It is in these descriptions that the book is most expansive and lyrical. There is a lot to like about the book, even though I felt that it did not quite reach the heights of The Overstory.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars